Places: The Confessions of Nat Turner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: c. 1810-1831

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Virginia

*Virginia. Confessions of Nat Turner, TheSouthern state in which the historical Nat Turner (1800-1831) led the revolt on which William Styron’s novel is based. Following the historical record, the novel is set in various locations in Southampton County, in the state’s southeastern corner. Styron suggests that Virginia’s “relatively benign” atmosphere may have made it the only state in which a revolt such as Turner’s could have occurred, as conditions in states south of Virginia were so dehumanizing that slaves had little leisure with which to contemplate their condition and consider changing it. By contrast, many slave owners in Virginia were mild enough to permit slaves the leisure to contemplate their slavery, and even, in the case of Turner, permit them to learn to read. Indeed, it is through reading the Bible that Turner is inspired to mount his revolt.

*Jerusalem

*Jerusalem. Site of the Virginia jail where Turner awaits his execution and dictates the confessions that form this novel after his revolt collapses. During his last days, the “gray dawn” approaches “stealthily,” and the “pale frost” awakens Turner to the “hard clay” of his cell’s floor and to the “mournful” sounds of the city and the “hysteria” that hangs over Jerusalem “like thunder.” Ironically, when Turner begins his revolt, its ultimate goal is to reach Jerusalem, where he intends to seize the armory so he can supply weapons to his incipient army. Jerusalem becomes his final destination, though not in the way he originally plans. In this depressing atmosphere at the end, under the “gray impermeable sky,” Turner feels, for the first time, not closer to God in Jerusalem, but utterly separated from the God whose will he originally believes he is obeying.

*Dismal Swamp

*Dismal Swamp. Large swampy area overlapping southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Turner plans for his followers to take refuge there after wreaking their vengeance on white people, who he believes are incapable of following black people into the swamp. He never reaches the swamp, but the outcome of his revolt proves to be as dismal as the swamp itself.

Turner farm

Turner farm. Place where Nat is born and reared and where he experiences his greatest happiness. When he is young, he is unconscious of his slave status, thanks to belonging to masters who object to slavery on principle. There Nat is taught to read and is promised that he will learn a trade and be emancipated when he reaches the age of twenty-five. He later remembers this farm as a big house with the “golden light” of spring and the smell of newly plowed ground. He remembers flowers, ferns, and the “brilliant fuss of chattering birds.”

Eppes farm

Eppes farm. Nat’s second home, located near the western Virginia town of Shiloh, a “grim and pious” little community, where Nat is the only slave and leads a life of dull drudgery. Nat later remembers the community as a place of small farmers, a “bleak and undone brotherhood” of failures from a depression era, along with their “goiterous women” and “worm-infested children.”

Moore farm

Moore farm. Nat’s third home. Here he is whipped for the first time and learns more of the cruelties of slavery. He remembers his first introduction to this place during a bleak winter. There he sleeps in a “dark little cupboard” where he learns to live with “emaciated mice” and spiders. Nat’s plans for killing the white masters begins to take shape while he is living on this farm.

Travis farm

Travis farm. Nat’s final home, which he remembers as “more pleasant acres” than those on which he previously has lived and on which his living accommodations, his “bachelor quarters,” are “cozy.” His memories include a “balmy climate.” Nat feels that he possesses some dignity under his masters, the Travises, whom he regards as basically decent people who let him ply his trade of carpentry. However, it is in the nearby woods that he first experiences a vision of God, which he interprets as divine sanction for his mission.

*Norfolk

*Norfolk. Large coastal Virginia town. At both the beginning and end of the novel, Nat dreams about the ocean and his own stark white temple nearby, which he says must have been based on his dreams of Norfolk, which he never actually sees. He dreams of a “barren, sandy cape” with the winds “benign and neutral.” On the promontory stands a serene white temple. This mysterious temple, without doors or windows, seems to represent the ultimate mystery of God, near the ocean of the cycle of life and death.

Sources for Further StudyBetts, Richard A. “‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ and the Uses of Tragedy.” College Language Association Journal 27, no. 4 (June, 1984): 419-435. Discusses the novel as having the conventions of classical tragedy, including Nat Turner as tragic hero.Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West. “William Styron and the Southampton Insurrection.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 52, no. 4 (1981): 564-577. Argues that the novel was carefully researched but that the author took a risk in inventing detail.Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. A collection of articles by ten black critics that appeared one year after the publication of the novel. Most take Styron to task for his characterization of Turner as a weak and ineffectual man with homosexual proclivities.French, Scott. The Rebellious Slave: The Image of Nat Turner in American Memory. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. This scholarly study places Nat Turner and the rebellion he led within the broader context of American history. It includes the actual document of the “Confessions,” which Turner supposedly wrote.Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Related Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996. These documents and essays emphasize the historical context of the novel and provide much information about other attempted slave rebellions.Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A collection of sundry critical essays by various scholars of literature and history, one of which is an interview with Styron.Herion-Sarafidis, Elisabeth. Mode of Melancholy: A Study of William Styron’s Novels. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University Press, 1995. One chapter of this study is devoted to The Confessions of Nat Turner. The critic interprets the novel in a broad context of the author’s biographical psychology.Lang, John. “The Alpha and the Omega: Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.” American Literature 53, no. 3 (1981): 499-503. Explains Nat Turner’s religious views, particularly the redeeming role of Margaret Whitehead.Mallard, James M. “The Unquiet Dust: The Problem of History in Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture 36, no. 4 (1983): 525-543. Claims that Nat Turner’s personal quest for salvation tends to subvert his slave rebellion.Oates, Stephen B. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. While this work has little to do with Styron’s novel, it does chronicle actual known, historical events of the uprising that can be set against the fictional account in the novel.
Categories: Places